Angus Fletcher, Storythinking: The New Science of Narrative Intelligence

Angus Fletcher, Storythinking: The New Science of Narrative Intelligence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023), 200 pp. £84.00 Hb. £20.00 Pb. £20.00 E-book. ISBN: 9780231206921

Angus Fletcher’s Storythinking offers a unique narrative argument about precisely that: narrative thinking. A short and accessibly-written book, it tries to appeal to a broad audience of academics and non-academics alike, alternating theoretical explorations of Fletcher’s proposed epistemological concept with discussions of the more practical implications of his idea.

Fletcher’s principal concern is with his titular concept: storythinking. He offers this concept as a way of highlighting what he sees as an under-appreciated aspect of thinking: a creative element that centres action. It stands at odds with logical thinking: ‘Analytically, story and logic employ different epistemological methods. Logic’s method is equation, or more technically, correlational reasoning, which inhabits the eternal present tense of this equals that. Story’s method is experiment, or more technically, causal speculation, which requires the past/present/future of this causes that’ (8). Story is experimental, whereas logic is analytical.

This distinction proves a promising one, and Fletcher paints a convincing picture of an epistemological turn that values story alongside logic. While future-oriented narratives and hopeful thinking have been popular academic trends, Fletcher traces a similar impulse in the act of thinking itself, doing so in a way that weaves together neuroscientific interpretations with pedagogical critiques, philosophical legacies with literary ones. Just like his concept proposes, Storythinking is a creative experiment in the shape of establishing a new narrative about thinking. A characteristic chapter in this regard is ‘The Brain Machinery of Storythinking,’ in which Fletcher quite skilfully narrates a history of the neurophysiologist John Eccles’s discovery of synaptic brain workings as ‘nonlogical neural machinery’ (80). Rather than just presenting an overview of interpersonal and intellectual influences, he manages to construct a dynamic network of narrative threads, that illustrate his concept lucidly: he constructs a story, one that alternates more experimental paths with those more factual, that opens up new avenues of thinking. Through Eccles, Fletcher reaches out to Karl Popper, and Popper brings him to the philosopher Francis Bacon. Arriving at scientific polymath John Herschel, Fletcher’s story of storythinking is completed, having narrated the philosophy of science of Eccles’s neural discoveries. And it very clearly works: the creative risks he explicitly and implicitly takes open up new avenues for the reader to rethink old problems. By contextualising Popper’s scientific method of falsification in such a context, for example, Fletcher manages to shift the emphasis to the conjecture it requires, and the creativity that that in turn invites. And while being a methodological study in the first place, Storythinking also provides a valuable way to reconceptualise matters from authorship to scientific practice.

The book cleverly engages with a philosophical gap between logic and action that Fletcher traces from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond, initiating a resolution based on his two methods of thinking that interact but are radically different. However, this same motion also works to reify a distinction between logic and action in a way that reinforces the reification of logic as something beyond the realm of storythinking. After all, while logic struggles to incorporate action within its systems, logical systems themselves still can be seen as emerging from creative action – in other words, logic is also a narrative. And this is the one issue with Fletcher’s thought-provoking notion of storythinking: the baggage with which it burdens ‘logic,’ which in turn downplays the value of storythinking. The notion of storythinking would only be strengthened by the incorporation of logic within it; after all, what is logic if not itself a creative expression of trying to come to terms with the world – an epistemological experiment that has been quite successful for the last ages?

However, it is because of the inspired notion of storythinking that such questions even come up, and the potentials for Fletcher’s concept prove both plentiful and varied. These, then, are the secondary concerns of the book: what are the practical benefits of storythinking? Fletcher discusses how educational systems tend to prioritise logic-based thinking and the potential benefits of emphasising story, and eventually even moves to a self-help-adjacent genre of writing, divulging possible benefits of storythinking on personal growth, social and societal growth, and spiritual development. This particular combination of theoretical and practical elements can make the text a bit jarring at times, since these halves appear to have different audiences. At the same time, though, narrative experimentation is something essential to the concept that the book as much presents as partakes in, and makes the text an interesting artefact as well as theoretical exploration. Overall, therefore, Storythinking is a valuable contribution to the fields it bridges between, offering methodological reflection and new avenues for study in the field of intellectual history.

Anna Dijkstra, Huygens Instituut